3 Leadership Styles to Survive and Then Thrive in Chaos

Let’s face it.

Doubting anyone reading this has ever lived through a more tumultuous 20 months — ever. Disruption. Change. Global pandemic. Upheaval. Violence.

The normal human reaction is to hunker down. Isolate. Hide. If there’s sand nearby, stick your head in it. And scrunch your eyes tightly closed. Any day now, it will all go back to normal.

Or not.

Those are behaviors. But what about feelings? As a leader, how are you feeling about life these days? (I feel like I’m stepping into my wife’s psychology role here.) I was fascinated to read an article published by Harvard Business Review this week which summarized a study of 30 global leaders’ emotional reactions during the height of the pandemic.

Interestingly, they identified three distinct leadership styles: Heroes, those who focused their efforts on being positive; Technocrats, who maintained a more transactional focus strictly on results (or the lack thereof); and Sharers, those leaders who were comfortable openly sharing their positive and negative experiences.

Guess what? The authors found that Sharers proved to be the most effective leaders when it came to building cohesive, high-performing teams that were more resilient in the face of massive change and uncertainty. The authors’ findings identified these three rather distinct types of leaders:

  1. Heroes: Leaders who focused on the positive, doing their best to convince their teams that they would get through the crisis no matter what.
  2. Technocrats: Leaders who ignored emotions altogether and focused on tactical solutions.
  3. Sharers: Leaders who openly acknowledged their fears, stresses, and other negative emotions.

Heroes.

Well who wouldn’t want to be a heroic leader? Sounds like the perfect antidote to all the failed leadership examples we see in the news everyday — from absent presidents to a retreating and embarrassed new Jeopardy game show host. William Cohen defined heroic leadership as

…the art of influencing others to their personal best and maximum performance in accomplishing any task, objective, or project while putting their needs and those of the mission above your own.

He identified eight principles that characterize heroic leaders, prioritized as follows:

  1. Maintain Absolute Integrity
  2. Know Your Stuff
  3. Declare Your Expectations
  4. Show Uncommon Commitment
  5. Expect Positive Results
  6. Take Care of Your People
  7. Put Duty Before Self
  8. Get Out in Front

Can’t and wouldn’t argue with any of those. Would you?

But the researchers who found heroic leaders less effective than sharing leaders discovered that that style can cause team members to feel distanced from the leader since they do not “appear” to be struggling at all. Seeing the “perfect” leader can put pressure on others to suppress their own feelings. This façade of positivity can decrease the well-being of both team members and leaders, undermine leaders’ relationships with employees, and ultimately reduce self-confidence and performance at work.

Technocrats.

While the term was coined earlier, the notion of a technocracy grew into a full-fledged movement in the 1930s when politicians and banks were blamed for the economic disasters of the time. There were those who argued “technical experts” would be better suited to run the country and save it from ruin.

Today, the leadership label is applied more commonly to experts with a highly rational and scientific approach to public policy issues and management in general. For example, these days certain technocrats believe they can out-perform God and nature by creating meat in a factory. The so-called Agenda 21/2030 hopes to eliminate all traditional ranching and farm animals that are “unsustainable.”

Still scratching your head on this one? From Technocracy News & Trends, here’s a list of today’s technocrats (those who believe social engineering is the key to a brighter future):

  • Dr. Anthony Fauci
  • Al Gore
  • Robert McNamara, the Secretary of Defense during the Vietnam war
  • Bill Gates
  • Elon Musk
  • Eric Schmidt (Google)
  • Jeff Bezos (Amazon.com)

Starting to make more sense?

In the aforementioned study, technocrats themselves determined that ignoring their emotions wasn’t working well. Their own emotional health was suffering. One noted, At the start of the pandemic, I managed the stress and the uncertainty by looking after my own mental space a lot. Now, I am still locked in but I am a lot less kind to myself. My old ‘business as usual’ pushing has come back … I am feeling more and more out of sync and not giving myself any more of the ‘self-nurturing’ space I had at the beginning of the pandemic.

A larger and more disturbing result is the toll on the leaders’ relationship with team members. The focus on survival and finding solutions to dig out from under the pandemic’s “landslides” means negative feelings and emotions are unaddressed and every part of the organization suffers.

OK. Let’s take a break. While emotions and emotional health may sound too “shrinky” for you, we know that, in fact, they drive everything leaders care about, from job performance to turnover to customer satisfaction. And for the True North leader, your emotional health goes beyond business relationships to personal and spiritual interactions as well.

Sharers.

Here’s what the researchers learned from their study’s results:

…sharing negative emotions can lessen their impact on the leader, build empathy between leaders and employees, encourage others to open up about their own negative emotions, and help others recontextualize and overcome those struggles — ultimately boosting morale and performance throughout the organization.

From one perspective, this “touchy-feely” prescription of openly expressing negative feelings, concerns, fears and trepidations to your staff, is daunting — if not downright scary and even dangerous. All that just causes a contagion of negative feelings, right?

Well maybe. But we do know this — and from your own experiences I’ll guess you’d agree — your followers always benefit from honest and authentic communication from the boss. In times of crisis and recovery, your team members require even more communication — not less. They need more than merely rational solutions and need-to-know-only memos and communiques.

If you’re uncomfortable releasing your inner sharing leader, take these strategies out for a test drive:

1. Build more internal awareness of your own emotional reactions

If you journal, begin including in your entries more about your emotions and reactions to the events of the day.

Become self-diagnostic and honest about how well you’re doing.

If you don’t debrief at the end of each day, start. My wife and I will typically sit for an hour or more after dinner reflecting on the day and our accompanying feelings.

If not your spouse, a trusted friend who doesn’t work for you. Someone safe, honest and who is a good listener.

2. Start small

Meaning, don’t freak out your team by suddenly and uncharacteristically “spilling your emotional guts.” Maybe begin by expressing a minor frustration. Not a major challenge or your extreme emotions.

3. Plan what to disclose and when

Timing is everything. Once you’ve determined what you can safely share, pick a time when you can ensure privacy and a safe personal space, rather than randomly going for it.

4. Lead by modeling effective emotional regulation

Your team will begin learning these important communication techniques as they see you proving their effectiveness. When you begin to support others, you will improve your mood, your confidence, and even your physical health.

5. Tell the truth: good, bad and ugly

When your team sees you reacting to the serious challenges of the business or ministry, they will begin to examine their own reactions and how to handle them in the future. Think of it this way, you are improving the overall health of your organization, professionally, personally and spiritually — beginning with yourself.

As always, this blog is most concerned with the True North leader. Your health and well-being. And your relationship with your team members. Look, we know that God invented emotions. And since we are made in His image, we have them too. He gets angry (Psalm 106:40); He hates (Psalm 5:5); He has compassion (Exodus 33:19); He expresses grief (Isaiah 63:10); and joy (Zephaniah 3:17). And Jesus expressed all those emotions and more, modeling how to express them with his followers.

My point? If you choose to become a sharing leader, know that God made you, cherishes you and empowers you to be the most effective True North leader. Trust that.

Trust Him.

Norm Mintle

Dr. Mintle holds an earned Ph.D. in Organizational Leadership. He has served in executive positions across a broad range of media organizations and as a dean in two universities. This and previous blogs now provide conversation fodder for a group of True North Leaders online. Join us at True North Leadership on Facebook.

Media executive. Educator. Leader. Innovator.